Friday, February 3, 2012

Understanding Music

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing; it's hard not to fit new information/experiences into existing contexts that you're familiar with. For example, every time I read something about the economy I fit it into one of the macro frameworks I've learned at work. Which is useful and relevant, but I think it can blind you to the nuances of any particular situation, especially with a topic as complex as the economy.

I bring this up because I'm starting to see a similar dynamic happening with my relationship to music, ever since I really started studying theory and composition. It's one thing to listen to a piece and think, "this part gives me tingles. I like that." It's another to say, "I really like the use of the Lydian dominant and how it modulates to Dorian minor a major third above." I'm starting to move from the former to the latter.

What irks me slightly is that I think there's an element of music appreciation that hinges upon not understanding the theory behind it. People like music for all kinds of reasons: lyrics, timbre, mood. Being able to hear chord changes on the fly gives you a structure you can use to interpret what you hear but creates an extra element of predictability that I think can blunt an aspect of the aesthetic experience. I guess it's a little like magic: once you know how things are done it's less exciting..

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Date Stamp

I just purchased a self-inking date stamp, the "U.S. Stamp & Sign T5030 Professional": the kind used by your grizzled career bureaucrat such as one you might find in a middle school library.


While I am a man of the electronic age who believes that all documents should be uploaded to Google Docs, occasionally we must revert to a more primitive medium and engage with paper. In these cases, much inefficiency may result from lack of proper metadata. This self-inking date stamp will allow me to "tag" any paper records with an appropriate black inky stamp marking its date, thus ensuring that its temporal location will remain knowable until the physical medium disintegrates (as all things eventually do).

I look forward to stamping all my greeting cards with this.

Proper Envelope Addressing

If you're conscientious enough to mail handwritten letters in the age of email, the least you can do is follow the USPS's published guidelines for addressing envelopes.

"Publication 28 - Postal Addressing Standards" and "Publication 25: Designing Letter and Reply Mail" clearly state that the address should all be in upper case: "Uppercase letters are preferred on all lines of the address block." If in type, use a sans serif font, un-bolded. Punctuation is to be omitted: "Even though MLOCR enhancements now allow effective reading of punctuation in addresses, it still is suggested that punctuation be omitted when possible." Always use the ZIP+4 format which should be the last line of the address block. "Whether or not punctuation is included in the address, the ZIP+4 code format is five digits, a hyphen, and four digits (for example, 98765-4321). The code eliminates guesswork about the intended destination." Use the USPS-provided handy address validator to look up the appropriate ZIP+4 code and accepted abbreviations in the street address.

To aid in OCR readability, letters should be clearly formed, they should not overlap each other, and there should be a space at least the width of an "M" between words (two spaces before the ZIP+4 code). The address should be left indented and placed appropriately within the bounds of the envelope:


Saturday, November 5, 2011

If You See Something, It's Probably Nothing


I hate this poster. It's everywhere in the New York-area transit system, and it's the worst combination of misguided and stupid. How often do terrorist bombings occur compared to people forgetting things in trains? The ratio is probably 1-to-100,000, probably more. How qualified is the average person in assessing whether something poses a threat to public safety? Combine this with the cover-your-ass incentives in a large government bureaucracy and what you get are bomb squads called in to detonate someone's grocery bags that they forgot in a parking lot. "Suspicious-looking" people (i.e., racial minorities, the mentally ill, people who are nervous or don't make eye contact) are arrested and strip-searched based on nothing more than an overly anxious do-gooder calling in an imagined threat. This happens again and again, yet the authorities keep perpetuating a climate of fear, because that's how government bureaucrats keep their funding.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Appropriate Existentialist Emotional Reactions

Situation Response
Death of a loved one silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
Terminal illness silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
Hit by a car silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
Laid off silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
Birth of a child silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
Promotion at work silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
Cooking dinner silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
First date silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death
Win ten free cupcakes silently contemplate the moment, and wait for death

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Office Space

I work in a corporate office park in suburbia. I've worked for the same company, on the same floor of the same building, for more than five years.

Companies are like large families, except they are run much more efficiently. New members come in all the time, and poorer performing members are promptly ejected without much fuss, unlike your deadbeat cousin. But much like real families, you don't have to be nice to anyone, because you're stuck together by power structures beyond your control.

There's something comforting about the rhythm and routine of office life. I know where I sit, in proximity to whom, where I can find beverages and snacks. People can be acknowledged via a nod in the hallway and not much else. You can walk around and talk to people, or just shoot emails all day from the comfort of your desk.

To me, the office is the ultimate triumph of man over nature. There is nothing even remotely "natural" about office space: the fluorescent lighting, the uniform wood and glass paneling, the modular desks, the shades of beige and grey and off-white. Except for occasional trips to the bathroom, I need not be reminded of my ignoble origins as a biological life form, created through random genetic forces and destined to decay into biodegradable mush. In the office, I am a slickly oiled cog in an organization, deftly manipulating and molding symbols and concepts, willing ideas into being with a few keystrokes.

Children and Self-Esteem

As you know, I have for many years been strongly opposed to our culture's unhealthy obsession with having kids develop "self-esteem." It was ridiculous when I was seven and "DUSO the Dolphin"—a rather unconvincing aquatic puppet—was brought in to teach us lessons about "being ourselves". Whatever, Ms. Clark. I can see through your inadequate attempts to instill wholesome values into a bunch of spoiled kids who will, at best, grow up to become misogynist investment bankers. I'm sure my classmates' self-esteem served them well as teenagers when they were shoplifting and defacing public property.

Indeed, a proper childhood is spent learning shame and humility, the virtues that prevent teenagers from theft, vandalism, date rape, and other such youthful pursuits. You may think your freewheeling eight-year-old is just a happy, content boy, doing what he wants, "being himself", and then next thing you know he is spray-painting your car and spreading antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea to half the volleyball team. By then, it's too late.

Many of the ills in our world stem from inadequate self-discipline. Discipline is strongest when it is imposed from within, rather than through external enforcement: through intense self-loathing and crippling sexual angst rather than scoldings and beatings (which, to be sure, can be conducive to self-control).

As an eminent physicist / cultural critic once explained to me, the whole point of society is to a) get people to fear themselves and b) get them to aspire to be something other than themselves. "Getting in touch with your inner self" is a route to mob violence, lynching, gang rape, "street art", littering, and a general collapse of social order. Children should be taught that not only are they insignificant and unlikely to be worthy of attention, they are dangerous if left to their own devices and must be reined in for the greater good. Down with DUSO the Dolphin. Meet your new friend, Sam the Self-Aware Sheep.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Brief Thought on Music and Resolution

I've heard this idea before that one reason a piece of music sounds "good" is that it plays with one's expectations of what should come next. That is, we are conditioned—by biology, Western cultural oppression, our middle-school music teacher, whatever—to expect certain sounds to be followed by other sounds. (For example, we learn in classical music theory 101 that dominant chords resolve to tonic chords.) This sounds "right." But if it sounds that way all the time, it becomes less interesting because we hear the resolution in our head before it's played. It's when it resolves to an unexpected chord that we perk up and think, "huh, that's interesting, I wonder where this is headed." Same with rhythm: when it shifts in a way that is coherent but a break from what you expected, it can sound cool. (Or jarring, depending on the continuity.)

Anyway, it's an abstract notion that I hadn't given much thought to until yesterday. I was transcribing the melody and chord progression of a few songs I'd been listening to recently. I'd play 10 seconds of the song, sing it back to myself, play it on the piano, and write it down. I got about eight bars in and was feeling pretty pleased by my progress. But when I went back to check my transcription, I was surprised to see that I got a few notes wrong. And they were all at points where you'd expect a resolution (a movement from dissonance to consonance). When I sang the song to myself, I had re-interpreted those sections to resolve the way it "should", and that's what I actually heard! In one case, instead of a resolution from a minor v to minor i (which is how I heard it), it actually resolved to a bIII major seventh*.

At first, I thought of this as a stupid mistake on my part. Then I realized that the reason it sounds "good" to me is that I consistently expect that resolution which doesn't come; I'm left hanging until the next phrase, which is what keeps me interested in the melody.

*I know that bIII maj7 implies a i min7 maj9 chord, but if you don't play the root, the tonality is major.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Five things that made me decide to eat much fewer birds and mammals

In descending order of importance.

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Thomas Metzinger's The Ego Tunnel

This YouTube clip about an autistic girl who was presumed to be mentally incapacitated but was able to prove that she had a rich inner life

Arthur Schopenhauer's "On the Sufferings of the World"

Scientific American, April 2007. "Just How Smart Are Ravens?"

Turtles on the Runway

I read an article about turtles at JFK airport. Apparently hundreds of them were crawling across the runway to get to the beach and lay eggs.

I imagine many people think this is cute, but to me this raises deeply troubling existential questions. How much am I like these turtles—as I take the train to get to a happy hour in the city—completely unaware of the metaphorical planes that could crush me at any moment? Perhaps I, like the turtles, am cognitively unable to comprehend the nature of the greater context (the runways, the airport) in which my silly human actions reside?

Of course, the airport workers pick up the turtles and put them somewhere "safe". Who knows what horrors await them there.